Dickins with a twist
Barry Dickins at work in Broome. Picture: Flip Prior.

"All my life I've either taught or written or painted — I'm dreadful at everything else, including gardening," Barry Dickins says, folding his ink-splattered hands on the table.

"It's a hectic life so to slow down, I paint... and I like to get away from reality because reality can be so humdrum."

Bearded and slightly crumpled, the 62-year-old Melbourne painter, poet and award-winning playwright is clearly not the type to sit still. But for the past week or so, he has been quietly defrosting in Broome, marvelling at the town’s unhurried pace and adjusting to its languid rhythms.

"I live in congested Coburg, which is cheap and freezing cold. This is heaven," he says.

"I'd like to stay here, it's beautiful.

"When I got off the plane, it was a bit cold but there was a lovely sea mist, with frangipanis and the faint odour of brawls."

In Broome, Dickins will show off his watercolours from Melbourne's Bridget McDonnell Gallery in an exhibition to be opened by Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson at a private residence on July 7 and 8.

But having taught for many years at the Genazzano Catholic girls' college in Kew, Dickins was also invited to teach at its sister school in Broome, St Mary's College, to give teenagers a glimpse of the whimsical world inside his head.

Buried deep in two weeks of art and poetry classes, Dickins admits he bores easily of teaching and has never lasted anywhere longer than six months in more than 40 years.
However, he loves it for short stints, always fascinated by the way children work.

"In my art classes, there's so much chittychat because I never shut up and kids love to talk as they paint," he said.

They probably find plenty in common. Although quietly spoken, Dickins emits a steady stream of chatter laced with whimsy, humour and pathos, with a childlike fascination for the world around him.

Despite his early propensity for art — he won the Dandenong Art Prize at 19 for his pencil drawing of two old people snoozing in the fruit market at Queen Victoria Market — he didn’t start exhibiting until his 20s.

Instead, having left high school early to work in a factory for five years, he completed diplomas in education and fine arts before his "terrible restlessness" had him meandering through jobs all over the world.

Over the years, between teaching stints, he has dabbled in journalism as a feature writer and cartoonist for Fairfax newspapers, while producing more than 20 plays, 26 books and a plethora of artworks, which have been shown at 11 solo exhibitions.

In 1995 — his happiest year — his son, Louis, was born and his play, Remember Ronald Ryan, about the last man hanged in Australia, won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award and Amnesty Award for Peace Through Art.

But he is probably best known as a biographer of flamboyant Australian artist Brett Whiteley, Black and Whiteley: In Search of Brett, published in 2002, and for winning the 2004 Prime Minister's Medal for Services to Literature.

It all came tumbling down for Dickins five years ago, when his wife of 25 years left him, triggering a "serious crack-up" and heart attack fuelled by anxiety and depression that landed him in hospital for six months.

He credits his beloved late father, Len, with saving his life by visiting him in the clinic and asking simply: "When are you coming home?"

Checking out the next day, Dickins took the first slow steps to recovery, writing a searingly honest account of his depression and treatment with electroconvulsive therapy in his book, Unparalleled Sorrow, while rediscovering his joy for life.

Dickins' face contorts at the memory of finding his 92-year-old father dead in his chair in February.

He says Len, a printer, had taught him to paint in watercolours when he was just five years old, on long bicycle trips to the bush uninterrupted by words.

While the pair didn't always see eye to eye on art later in life — Len preferred realism, whereas Dickins tended towards abstraction — they shared a special, deep bond.

His latest book is a semi-autobiographical and fanciful account of his childhood in Melbourne co-written with Jenny Lee.

Titled Barry and the Fairies of Miller Street, it took him more than three years to write and was only released after his father's death.

Despite his sorrows — or perhaps because of them — Dickins doesn’t dwell on the misery of loss, instead channelling his energy into riotously colourful works that celebrate life.
In the airy sun room at the back of his rented "hovel" in Melbourne, he throws boiling water over expensive Italian paper before splashing over inks, gouache and acids in a technique he calls "brilliantism".

He is most inspired by the vibrancy and lavishness of comic opera — "fantastic costumes, brilliant appearances, amazing lighting and a really witty script" — and likes his paintings to be similarly joyous, infused with a sense of excitement.

"There's no attempt at realism," he says. "It's a fantasy of patterns and rhythms and waves. It's not to fill up a hole — I don't see painting as therapy, I see it as pleasure. I work in a completely spontaneous way. They’re sopping wet with water and sunshine.

"Fun is sneered at in art as the most worthless thing but, as far as I can see, fun is the only thing worth living for."

Barry and the Fairies of Miller Street (Hardie Grant, $24.95) is out now. Barry Dickins will read passages from the book at 2pm on July 7 at a weekend exhibition of his paintings at 12 Charon Place, Broome. He will give a free poetry reading at Matso's Broome Brewery this Sunday at 3pm.

The West Australian

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